A tale of two Olympics: China’s remarkable transformation since 2008

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The summer games Beijing hosted 14 years ago put the communist nation on the world stage. The winter games it’s about to host will showcase an ever more confident and powerful global player.

By Tom Fowdy

As 2021 ends, all eyes look forward to what will be, assuming there are no upsets, the first big event of 2022: the Beijing Winter Olympics that begin on February 4. The games have, unsurprisingly, been marred in controversy amid America’s drive to politicise them against Beijing by encouraging countries to diplomatically boycott the event on human-rights grounds.
The goal? To humiliate China and deny it the prestige that comes from hosting the games, which are seen as a symbol of humanity, heritage and unity. Yet this political no-show might not dampen Beijing’s spirits as much as Washington might have hoped, not least because, in spite of the challenge posed by the US, the country is increasingly confident and optimistic about its own position and strength in the world.
In other words, it’s not reliant on or in need of American approval. The 14-year period between Beijing’s two Olympic Games, in 2008 and 2022, tells us the story of how this self-assurance emerged and consolidated. As a recent op-ed in The Guardian put it: ‘Mind Games: how China’s confidence soared between two Olympics’. This article analysed in depth how the first event, coupled with the global financial crisis, was “China’s Moment”, and how the second has grown to depict China’s confidence amid its new rivalry with the West.
What most Western audiences fail to understand is that China views its own historical experience through the lens of a national story and that story is one of decline, hope and revival. Its past is defined by what it refers to as the “century of humiliation” – a time when China became weak and poor, and was brutally subjugated by foreign powers, who violated its national sovereignty, and quasi-colonized and exploited it. With it came a period of soul-searching and a belief that China’s traditional ideas and philosophies had failed the people, and, eventually, the dream of remaking China into a modern, powerful, prosperous and capable country.
It was this period of ideological upheaval that brought down the Qing Dynasty and fuelled the rise of the Communist Party, which offered its ideology as an instrument for China’s revival and by which to overcome the legacies of colonialism. While the Mao Zedong era came with many upheavals and often tragic mistakes, the process of reform and opening up that followed was when China began its transformation into an industrial superpower.
Western minds cannot understand why the Communist Party is tolerated, let alone popular, but, for the Chinese, the dramatic change in economic fortunes under the party’s rule have been astonishing. The country has rapidly progressed from what was a peasant, agrarian nation into the world’s second-largest economy, bringing with it a change in living standards inconceivable even in the privileged West. These successes have all served to instil confidence in the people about China’s rise.
And here is where the upcoming Winter Olympics enter the story. When Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, it was an event that stood as a milestone of what China had achieved so far. An incredible point of contrast to the past, it showed a new China to the world. And it came amid the financial crisis – a global catastrophe that had thrown the economies of the West into turmoil while China continued to grow. As The Guardian article reflects, this instilled a sense of there being a destiny in China’s political system and the direction in which it was heading. It was not so much a symbolic turning point as a political one. This was China’s rise writ large for all to see.
But it was also a time when the West had more confidence in itself than it does today. It had a strong belief that, as China grew, it would change and become more liberal, and that capitalist engagement with the country was the virtue that would open it up.
However, the events of that year eventually put paid to that assumption. Economies such as the US’s may have since recovered from the financial crisis, but the lingering damage from the economic inequalities it exacerbated, shattering the dream that globalization was a win-win, unleashed new political forces. These forces not only objected to the changes in identity that globalization wrought, but also harkened back to a more glorious past. Within eight years of the Beijing Olympics came Donald Trump and Brexit – and with them, the world’s view of China began to change.
Today, a China ever more confident in itself faces a West that perceives Beijing as an existential threat to its own hegemony and centuries-long dominance over the world. China’s esteem has only grown in the face of political absurdities such as Brexit, Trump, and how it has fared in the Covid-19 pandemic compared to Western nations.
As for the West, the needle has shifted from engaging with China to encourage change to confronting and attempting to contain it in the hope of forcing through that change. America no longer believes trade with China will bring liberalisation, but rather that it’s a vice that has highlighted its own inequalities and inefficiencies, and tarnished the neoliberal economic system it endorsed. The 2022 Olympics is now the stage for that confrontation.
As The Guardian op-ed states: “In 2008, China was crying out to be recognised. It wanted to show its wealth, cosmopolitanism as well as friendliness … Nowadays, China wants to show its assertiveness. Some in the country go as far as to – perhaps mistakenly – suggest that the East is rising and the West is falling. Hence, in response to [recent] diplomatic boycotts, Beijing said: ‘Nobody cares.’”
As China’s confidence has grown, so has its belief that it does not need to be defined by or dictated to by the West. It has nothing left to learn from Western nations. If there’s a challenge ahead, it’s prepared to face it and to utilise its national strength to get what it wants. As a Global Times survey found, Chinese people at large now perceive their most important relationship and partner to be Russia, not the US. Yet, most strikingly, the same survey also found most Chinese are optimistic about the future.
Two Olympic tournaments have defined both China’s relations with the world and its sense of self, and drawn a contrast between its past and its future. It’s a national tale of upheaval, then revival and, now, a confidence in a future glory that the United States, for all its indignation, can’t foil. The games, and other events over the next 12 months, will be the next chapter in a story that will ultimately define the 21st century. In spite of China’s optimism, how it ultimately ends is anyone’s guess.

Tom Fowdy is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.